Creepy COC Macbeth

On a dark rainy day in the midst of Toronto’s traffic chaos I was rendered speechless by the new Canadian Opera Company production of Verdi’s Macbeth directed by Sir David McVicar. I never knew this opera could move me so much. In the last act each scene was better than the last, building inexorably to the conclusion. I don’t want to give too much away.

Verdi would have been impressed.

Some of that is the work of a director making only a few changes from the original. While I try to go with the flow of directors updating and even revising operas, I’m always thrilled when they manage to bring it off without losing the essential thread of the story.

This was a team effort. Perhaps the single most important aspect is the magic running through Shakespeare’s Scottish play. If the chorus of witches Verdi created doesn’t persuade you in the first scene, there’s no point. The creepiness underlying this story of a husband and wife tempted to perform evil acts begins with witches making prophecies. The COC Chorus as a musical entity are led by Sandra Horst and sounded great, but they are usually the dramatic backbone of any good COC show too. The last time I saw this opera the witches were picturesque & well-sung, but never for a moment had me believing they were magical, let alone scary. This was different, better, scarier.

The designs from Set Designer John Macfarlane and Costume Designer Moritz Junge work with McVicar to take us deeper into a pit of gothic horror, employing additional non-singing performers. Here’s a photo plus a close-up showing something disturbing. But it’s disturbing in a good way.

Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Macbeth, 2023. Directed by Sir David McVicar, set design John Macfarlane, costume design Moritz Junge, lighting design David Finn (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Notice the children! (detail from photo by Michael Cooper)

And Shakespeare would have liked it as much as Verdi.

While Macbeth is a virtuoso vehicle for two singers, without the visceral groundwork laid in the first scene, it wouldn’t matter. So yes we were watching and listening to a thrilling pair of singing actors, namely Quinn Kelsey as Macbeth and Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Lady Macbeth.

Pendatchanska was announced as indisposed (aka unwell), but went on anyway. There were a few moments when I thought I detected a bit of extra care as she went for high notes, especially in her first scene. As she went on wow she got better. The sleep-walking scene in the last act was marked by an astonishing pathos, as the relentless monster who pushed her husband into acts of murder had become someone you could pity: which is the ideal. Amazing. Brilliant.

Kelsey brings the secure baritone with him that we’ve seen in previous Toronto appearances, a sound that reminds me a bit of Louis Quilico; in other words, he sounds like one of the greatest baritones of all time. Kelsey gave us lots of jagged edges, a portrayal that’s not very subtle: but then again that’s not how it’s written. His bel canto is superb, his tone beautiful almost every moment except when becoming so tormented as to cry out in pain.

Quinn Kelsey as Macbeth and Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Lady Macbeth (Photo: Michael Cooper)

There are many other wonderful performances I could mention, a big and mostly Canadian cast of strong performers. Adam Luther –aided by his beautiful costume—brought genuine star quality to his appearance as Malcolm. He and Matthew Cairns’ sweetly sung Macduff take over the opera towards the end. Clarence Frazer was a nasty murderer. Tracy Cantin made a solid impression in her scenes as lady in waiting to Lady Macbeth, including the sleep-walking scene alongside Vartan Gabrielian as a sympathetic doctor.

We were in capable hands with our conductor Speranza Scappucci, drawing electrifying sounds from the COC orchestra and chorus, while solidly keeping us rooted in a stylish bel canto reading.

I’m looking forward to seeing the show again. The run continues until May 20th, with soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska singing three of the remaining five performances as Lady Macbeth.

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7 Responses to Creepy COC Macbeth

  1. Just bought my first COC ticket, based on this review. (I have been watching the Met broadcasts for years at Cineplex.) So the COC thanks you.

  2. VM says:

    Operas here used to be the best, in my opinion – and I have seen many performances all around the world. In the past year or two the quality dramatically changed, mostly for the visual component. The orchestra is still superb, and the voices are mostly decent, but the decoration of the set is so minimalistic that one better stays home and listen to a CD. This visual deprivation was done by the Canadian Opera House to even most classic operas that normally bring a great visual impression – Aida, Barber of Seville, Carmen, Marriage of Figaro and now Macbeth. All these great operas have the same black&grey, some brown decor, simplistic and depressive. Macbeth also was economizing on lightning so badly that we barely saw what was happening, and having the whole stage in the dark grey and brown, with all characters dressed in black or dark grey in such poor light doesn’t help. Considering that majority of patrons in the audience have grey-hair age, proper light and color contrasts are important. My partner missed the opening and was offered to watch the opera on the screen – it was so dark picture that it was no point in looking at the screen. The staff kindly used a little pause after the first 15 min and open the door for those who were late. Only when it was curtain time, and there was a bit more light, we could see that the characters’ boots looked blue – the color was completely missed during the performance. Plus the female choir and the lead female singer really struggled during the latest performance – I was surprised. Male singers were all superb, and so was the orchestra. However, looking at consistently black-grey-brown design that the new director prefers I now wonder if we have to continue our membership there.

    • barczablog says:

      Past year or two? That’s the pandemic, when we’re seeing revivals of shows from the Neef era. But when I see the operas you’re listing you really mean over the past decade. I found that Barber very flamboyant (loving the clownish colorful costumes, the fake money falling from the ceiling!), the Carmen delightful and original. The Figaro too is full of brilliant visual touches even if it’s not really da Ponte anymore (mozart survives but then composers always do, even while their music is travestied).

      Let’s be honest, you had a bad driving experience, right? you were late because of the insane traffic in Toronto’s downtown core. So you came in grouchy and upset, as the rest of us were absorbed in something magical. You missed that first scene, meaning none of what follows makes nearly as much sense as when you get to see the whole thing. Macbeth is a dark story, to be upset that this one is dark seems rather unfair. Would you use dayglo for the witches..? How else would you stage witches? And as you may have noticed, I love this one, passionately, fervently. I am sorry to hear that the soprano was unwell, she almost cancelled the performance i saw. Today (Sunday) I hear that Tracy Cantin the understudy will go on, which I devoutly wish I could hear. She played the Lady in waiting, giving a whole new meaning to the role(!)

      You also said “The staff kindly used a little pause after the first 15 min and open the door for those who were late.” I really dislike that, to be honest. In the past the COC had backbone and wouldn’t let you in until an actual interval, and warned you of this well in advance. Why should I have to endure people crawling across me, people noisily coming in disrupting a piece of carefully composed music, because of bad choices? Newsflash: Toronto has traffic trouble, and you and everyone else should plan for it. Why should those of us who prepared for this be punished because you didn’t?

      Thank you for sharing your feelings and thoughts, and excuse me that I do not feel the same way. Awhile ago I shared some images of the COC promotions for next season. I think in fact they’re going in a new direction under the new guy, as you can see from their flamboyant images.

      • VM says:

        Yes, you are right, not past years but past seasons considering COVID, probably past 5 years or so. Still, I don’t have any incentives to write positive reviews – I am not sure if this blogger does, as all their reviews are 100% positive. Normally I even don’t write reviews, but, for an opera-lover, it hurts when the most beloved operas are being butchered by the chaise of directors for originality. We have been going to COC productions for over 20 years, back from its Hummingbird time, all seasons without a single miss. Re: Barber of Seville – please compare the last staging and the staging several years (10?) before that. The tricks with money remained in the latest, so there is no originality there but the last staging took away all the Barocco style that is an essential element of this opera. For sound, you can stay home and listen to mp3 file for free. The characters in that latest production were wearing simplistic pale clothing against an un-impressive dark background. Using “clownish” clothing for this opera is disrespectful: it is about a serious issue of female rights, not just for the fun of the deception of guardians. The humour of this opera is its strongest side, but it didn’t mean to be a clownado. Re: Marriage of Figaro, the latest was even worse – huge area with just plain grey floor, main characters in grey as well, many wearing modern business or casual clothing, background in the form of an old, scratched, peeled-paint-off whitish door, just a vacuum of visual complexity in that empty greyish-dirty-white staging. The trick with symmetric hanging-standing figures was interesting but shouldn’t be at the expense of the visual component for the whole opera that was meant to be of Barocco style! COC’s production of the same opera years ago was so good; why change it???
        Re: my own mood – no, I personally didn’t miss anything as it was only my partner who was late, not me. Driving to Toronto was usual, no worse than any other times, and my partner made the choice of spending time on parking (he could just come with me), expecting a miss of the 1/2 of the opera and watching it from the screen. It was a very pleasant surprise that the staff accommodated an entry of later arrivals within 15 min (our seats were conveniently near the entry to the row), so even these arrivals saw practically the whole opera. However, the lighting of this production was so bad that the screens in the hall were useless; according to my partner, nobody could see anything in its dark picture with dressed-in dark characters.
        Re: witches – the choir was not impressive, sorry – out of synch and power, and their sexual jesters were out of context…
        Yes, the opera is dark, but it is the responsibility of the director to make sure that the characters are visible, contrasted with each other and from the background, as their behaviour and facial expression on the scene are part of the story. Here not only was colour contrast missing, plus a deficit of light made it difficult to see the details, but the main characters looked alike, had the same beards, hairstyles, and clothing – so it was hard to trace who was who (with exception of the last group in red).

  3. barczablog says:

    Thanks for the commentary, VM. My wife agrees with some of what you say FWIW, she’s no fan of director’s theatre productions. We’re still discussing our subscription renewal. While I’m sold, the question is whether we’ll renew both seats or just one. As for the video in the lobby, I think they’re going a long way in offering something, even if you can’t see things too well.

    As for being positive, I’m aiming to avoid attacking people who put themselves out there, vulnerably onstage / in concerts etc. When I dislike something I leave it out, rather than cutting it up. And as far as the chorus performance (male vs female), I thought the men had an easier task, more or less standing and delivering, while the women are an essential part of the story-telling, in effect playing one of the characters (a group of witches, not the three as in Shakespeare). But maybe your performance wasn’t as impressive..? I know that the first scene blew me away. ALSO the last act built up tremendously. Full disclosure: i’ve never really liked this opera very much. having played its music with my brother (he sang the first apparition early in his career, and later learned the title role). I’m not sure I fully understood it…? I believe this production gives me an angle on it I’ve never had before, taking it beyond bel canto to something very political and theatrical. To each his/her own of course!

    Thanks again for the comments!

  4. RB says:

    So, I attended the opera this afternoon, and it was really an exciting afternoon. After all, it’s not very often that the understudy goes on for a leading role in an opera that is rarely performed. Ms. Cantin was very good in this challenging role and she really wowed me and everyone around me. I agree that it’s not nice to be critical of someone who has really put themselves out there, and overall she played Lady Macbeth beautifully and sang the hell out of it. Her voice has a lot of metal to it, a great deal of power. If she gets to sing the role again, she will find a way of pacing herself better, I’m sure. I’m also sure that the opera wires are buzzing tonight with her success, and I certainly hope that managers around the world are trying to figure out how to get her into their opera houses.

    But as for the lighting . . . the production was appropriately gloomy and certainly frightening. But you do need to distinguish between the characters and see faces better, I agree.

    This is a very fine production. But no opera is ever perfect. There are too many moving parts.

  5. Pingback: Macbeth closing performance: women have it harder | barczablog

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